leadership skills

Best Practices for Checking Candidate References

Reference CheckingNearly everyone has been asked at one time or another for references when they’re applying for a job. It’s usually the last step in the hiring process before an offer is presented.

However, fewer people have experienced being asked to supply a reference for someone and even fewer know the proper technique to use to discover the referee’s true experience with the person.

The goals of reference checking are to:

  • verify the candidate’s experience and achievement
  • verify the candidate’s competences
  • assess whether the candidate can indeed do the job for which he/she is being interviewed.

A good reference checking process will be

  • Fair and unbiased
  • Behaviourally focussed.
  • Legally defensible


Usually, it is the candidate who selects the referees and, most often, the people given by candidates as referees tend to be people for whom the candidate has worked.  If the candidate is currently employed, he or she should look at past employers or co-workers  or outside the organization – to vendors or customers.

We prefer, whenever possible, to interview referees who were peers and subordinates in addition to supervisors.  Some people are very adept at “managing upward” so they always look good in their supervisor’s eyes, while their behaviour with peers and subordinates may be very different from what the supervisor knows.  Going with a 360° background check helps unearth any bad behaviours that may only be revealed to people at or below a candidate’s level in an organization.

A good rule of thumb is to focus on the last 10 years of the candidate’s career or their last 3 positions to get the best reading on their competencies.  Usually, the target number of referees given by a candidate is 3.  Going with 3 referees is fine if the scope is to interview only referees for whom the candidate reported to and provides an opportunity to see if there is consensus among the referees.   In the case of a 360° review, there can be as many as 6 or more.  


At HIRE GRAY MATTER, we use a standard form for asking questions during the reference checking process. Depending on the position being filled, the process of the reference checking interview with the referee can run from 15 to 45 minutes.

Some reference-checking firms will send the referee a copy of the questionnaire to help them prepare for the interview.  Others tend to only give the questions over the phone, thinking this will promote more candid responses.

The questions asked during a reference check should be standardized so all candidates receive the same process, which helps ensure there are no biases introduced into the process. You also can add more role-specific questions depending on the position being filled to explore thing like leadership, but all referees consulted in checking a candidate’s references must be given the same questions.

In developing role-specific questions, think of the competencies required to do the job and structure questions that explore these

There should be no questions about age, gender or national origin etc. that could potentially introduce discriminatory comments.

The questions should also be open-ended to require the referee to give more than just a yes or no response. The answers are in their terminology, not ours.

Throughout the process, take detailed notes, sometimes probing the referee if an answer is unclear or ambiguous.



The process begins by establishing the working relationship between the candidate and the referee.  Where they worked. How long they worked together. Job responsibilities.  These are non-controversial topics and help the referee become comfortable while establishing a flow to the process.

Then verify details from the candidate’s resume – education, language skills, work experience (including any employers the candidate may have worked for since leaving the referee).

The next stages of the interview involve assessment of the candidate’s competencies.

One area is overall job performance, to get a sense for the candidate’s competence in a job role.

Ask behavioural questions, much as you would encounter in a job interview. For example, “Can you describe a situation in which [the candidate] had to overcome a major setback” or “What made Candidate successful in this role?”

In this area, you can introduce behavioural questions that were answered by the candidate during the interview process to validate his/her response.

Ask the referee about what made the candidate successful in his/her role and what motivated the candidate’s performance.

You also should explore the candidate’s ability to manage change within an organization.  Since the executive level is principally responsible for driving change within an organization, it represents an opportunity to explore the candidate’s leadership skills and style.

Lastly, because it often is more sensitive, probe on interpersonal skills.

This is a way of getting a more intensive assessment of leadership skills.  Ask about how the candidate’s verbal and written communication skills, how he/she coped with conflict, delegation and listening skills.

To wrap up the process, work with the referee to assemble a profile of the candidate – his/her strengths and weaknesses, areas for development.  One question we like to ask is whether the referee would hire the candidate again for the same role.   This usually signals the level of commitment to and conviction about the candidate.

If you’d like to learn more about our reference-checking process at HIRE GRAY MATTER, please contact us at info@hiregraymatter.com.